Judas Iscariot, revisionist hero
March 25, 2013 1 Comment
Yesterday morning, Benjamin read us the Last Supper scene from his children’s bible, then I read the same scene from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is good when you want the shortest version of a story shared across the synoptic gospels. My wife and I wondered what to follow up with for our grown-up "bible study."
Because Judas plays such a pivotal role in the Last Supper, we decided on Bart D. Ehrman’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, which opens with a description of Ehrman’s time in Switzerland as part of the team assembled by National Geographic to assess the authenticity of the 1,700-year-old codex of this lost Gnostic gospel. That story is itself so interesting that we decided that for our weekly “Dinner and a Documentary” we’d watch the National Geographic special made about Judas and this long-lost document from early Christianity.
Benjamin found some of the black-market antiquities reenactments scary, but was otherwise much more excited about the documentary and its subject than we had expected. Why would the betrayer tell his story? Why would someone else tell the story from his perspective? Why would others want that story suppressed? Why did the Gnostics turn the story on its head? How could Judas have been Jesus’s most loyal disciple?
What I find even more interesting than the Gnostic treatment of Judas’s story (in which Jesus Christ asks Judas to help the spirit Christ escape the prison of the physical man Jesus) is the very strong disagreement among non-believing biblical scholars about the historicity of Judas. I assume Bart Ehrman represents the scholarly consensus that Judas’s betrayal is one of the few things we can be confident about in the life of the historical Jesus. The criterion of dissimilarity says that traditions that would have been embarrassing to early Christians are more likely to be based in history (dissimilarity in this context means "embarrassment") — why would they make up a tradition that embarrasses them? According to this line of thought, the betrayal of the messiah by one of his inner circle of disciples would have been an awkward detail to include in the story but too well known to leave out, so early Christians had to spin it. But whether the portrayal is embellished or not, the central fact of the betrayal is probably historical.
(By the way, Scott Lahti and I discussed Germany, "the nation-state that won’t let parents choose their own baby names," in the comments section of "censorship schmensorship." Turns out that one of the verboten names on the list is Judas!)